By CAROLYN MILAZZO MURPHY
I took my son back to college for second semester.
The sight of his bags always chokes me up, but I’m better than a few years ago when his departure made me an emotional wreck. I know he’ll be back with his dirty laundry. Besides, there’s a chopped salad waiting for me once we get to campus.
We have this little deal: I drive him 100 miles to the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, MA., if he agrees to get a chopped salad with me at the Hogan Campus Center. It’s a pretty even trade: he gets a free ride and I get a salad before the 90-minute drive home.
One of the things I’ve noticed is his rapport with the women who prepare and serve our salads. They know him on a first-name basis – no real surprise there – and have a genuine interest in him and what he’s doing. As a mom, this is very reassuring. The more people we have looking out for our kids, the better.
I didn’t think much about it until I hung out with a bonafide lunch lady last weekend. After spending a day with Barbara Paight, I’m convinced lunch ladies are the unsung heroes of school systems.
They’re on the front lines with kids every day, providing meals so they can go into the classroom with full bellies and learn. They see the kids every day, and can tell when they’re upset, anxious or a little off because they’re not eating. They see who’s eating alone, on the fringes or causing trouble. If they’re not part of school “teams” watching for troubled students, they should be.
I first met Barbara about 30 years ago at my first reporting job at a small newspaper. Barbara was on the business end while I was on the news side, but we had something in common: we both met our husbands at the newspaper. I guess it wasn’t a bad deal: we’re both still married to the same guys.
We moved on from that paper, which closed several years ago. Barbara worked office jobs until her elderly parents got sick, and she stayed home to care for them. After they died, Barbara heard about an opening for a cafeteria worker at a public school, and applied for the job. Today, she splits her time between a high school and a grammar school. At 65, she’s on her feet all day and logs 10,000 steps without trying, but she wouldn’t change a thing.
“I love being a lunch lady,” Barbara says. “I love the kids, and I look forward to seeing them everyday. They’re what keep me going.”
I connected with Barbara last weekend at the Women’s March on Washington, D.C., where we both represented the Connecticut chapter of NOW. After wrapping me in a bear hug during a rest stop at the Delaware line, Barbara invited me to join her and her friend Dom for the day. I knew they’d be lively companions because they talked the entire way down while the rest of us tried to sleep.
If the tote bag she brought for the trip is any indication, Barbara is ideal for her job. Bananas, tangerines, crackers and mozzarella sticks were neatly packed in a square clear plastic tote that she carried cross-body style. She also carried a couple of bags of baked potato chips in her hands in case anyone needed a snack.
As a mom, I’m usually the one responsible for feeding my family, so it was a relief having someone else in charge of food. When I couldn’t open a mozzarella stick at the end of a long day, Barbara took it and showed me how to open it by grabbing the long end. I’ve never really known how to open them, even when my kids were little, so I appreciated the lesson.
I know some kitchen workers can be testy and mean, but I think it takes a special person to work in a school or college cafeteria. You must love kids and food, in that order, and you must tolerate deadlines, chaos and noise on a daily basis. I couldn’t do the job – the cacophony of the cafeteria would drive me insane – but I’m grateful that Barbara and others have found their calling.
Like many women who put their careers on hold to care for children, spouses or aging parents, Barbara’s priorities shifted when she re-entered the workforce. After a career as an office worker, she wanted something that would tap into her role as a natural nurturer. Her job as a lunch lady plays up to her strengths, which is why I think she finds it so rewarding. I think the longer you work, the more important it is to love what you’re doing.
I wish every kid could have a lunch lady like Barbara because she cares about the kids. She said that she can often tell when students are upset when they lose their appetite and stop buying lunch. She said she’s often aware when kids are going through tough times when they can’t afford breakfast or lunch. She’s genuinely sad when she learns that a student will be transferred because he’s too disruptive.
She’s keenly aware of the ups and downs of the kids she serves. I don’t know about you, but I’m grateful that some schools have workers on the front lines who take the time to notice and care. And if they’re not required to contact guidance officials when they suspect something is off, I think they should be.
Barbara told me she often uses her role to build rapport and put kids at ease. When a new child entered the district and was uncomfortable, she told him that she was once the new kid and understood how he felt.
“I was the first class to go to this school and I’m 65 now,” she told him. She said the boy got quite a laugh over the fact that she was the same age as the school. She said she’s glad she could break the ice for him and he’s a lot more relaxed now.
As we walked toward Freedom Square for the march, I asked Barbara why she was marching again for the second time since 2017.
“I’ve got four granddaughters,” she said simply. “I’m doing this for them.”
Carolyn Milazzo Murphy is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to the Connecticut chapter of NOW’s blog.